When Friedrich Merz went to bed on the night of Oct. 28, he was certain that his old rival, Chancellor Angela Merkel, would announce the next morning that she was stepping down from the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He had just finished watching the results from the state election in Hesse and seen the CDU plunge 11 percentage points relative to its result in 2014.
Merz has been a political insider long enough to know that Merkel couldn't simply ignore the result, particularly after the center-right had done so poorly in Bavaria just two weeks previous. And for days prior to the Hesse election, his old CDU allies had been calling to encourage him. Finally, after 18 years of waiting, the moment seemed to have arrived for which they had been waiting: the end of Merkel's tenure as chairwoman of the CDU.
And that is exactly what happened.
Merkel's announcement that she would withdraw her candidacy for CDU leadership ahead of the party's December party convention released a dynamic that immediately changed the entire architecture of the country's political framework. The leadership battle in the CDU had long been simmering. Now, it has burst out into the open. For almost two decades, internal party democracy had been frozen, Merkel's grip on leadership tight and unyielding. Now, though, there are several candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring to determine the future course of the CDU -- and nobody in the party's leadership can control what will happen next.
More than that, few in the party believe that Merkel will remain chancellor for long following the CDU convention in December -- no matter who emerges victorious in the race to succeed her.
The Closing Act
But the race isn't completely about who will end up leading Germany's strongest party in the post-Merkel era. It is also about revenge, about delayed gratification and about whether the clock can be turned back. Merkel is not only giving up a party office -- her political legacy is at stake.
What has now begun is the closing act of an extraordinary story, the German version of David versus Goliath. Once upon a time, a trio of men thought that it was up to them to lead the CDU out of the era of Helmut Kohl. It seemed guaranteed that Friedrich Merz, Roland Koch or Christian Wulff would take over leadership of the party and, later, of Germany. The future was clear before it had even arrived. But then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Angela Merkel, who cleverly took advantage of a major party donation scandal to take control of the CDU. For the trio of men from the West and their supporters -- the so-called "Andes Pact" -- Merkel was little more than an accident of history. They couldn't believe that a woman who learned her politics in the East would suddenly be steering the CDU ship. And that this woman would modernize the party to such a degree that it no longer had much to do with the CDU as they had come to know it. "Unfortunately, Merkel has no feel for the party," complained one senior CDU member at the time. "We, on the contrary, grew up within the party. We know what the CDU is and what it is not."
In other words, it isn't just old personal wounds that are now fueling Merz and his supporters, even if such wounds are plentiful. They also have a problem with the new direction the party took under Merkel -- the slide to the left and the abandonment of traditional positions like support for nuclear energy and mandatory conscription. "If the CDU gives up pretty much everything that it considered right and proper for decades, then we shouldn't be surprised if our core voters turn away," Merz wrote fully 10 years ago.
Now, he wants to become CDU leader to correct all of the mistakes that he believes Merkel made as party chairwoman. And in doing so, the 62-year-old Merz is fulfilling the longing many party members have for the good, old CDU: conservative, pro-business and preferably masculine. Health Minister Jens Spahn, although he is 24 years younger than Merz, has a similar image of his party. And then there is CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is seen as Merkel's favorite, in part because she has tended to support the course Merkel has charted.
Merkel, though, now realizes that she no longer has any influence over the direction her party will take or over how much of her legacy will remain. She also senses that her tenure as chancellor could come to a much quicker end than she would like. Back in 2004, when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder gave up leadership of the Social Democrats to Franz Müntefering under a similar situation to the one Merkel now faces, she blasted the move as "a complete loss of authority" and "the beginning of the end." She knows that the same could now apply to her -- which is why she had been hoping to the very end that the Hesse result would turn out better than it did.
Indeed, there are now significant doubts about the story that her decision to step down from party leadership had long been planned and was completely voluntary. There was, in fact, a group of conservatives surrounding Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the German parliament, the Bundestag, who intended to pressure her to step down if she didn't draw the consequences herself. Schäuble had even told his friend Friedrich Merz to decide by the Sunday afternoon of the Hesse election whether he wanted to campaign for party leadership or not.
Growing Pressure on Merkel
But the Merkel opponents within the party had begun preparing for the end of Merkel's leadership long before that. Back in March, at the funeral services for Cardinal Karl Lehman, many of the members of the old Andes Pact expressed to each other their frustration with Merkel and the fact that, despite the extreme difficulties she had had putting together her current lackluster government following the general election one year ago, she had given no indication that she was preparing to make way for a new generation. They thought that it might make sense to challenge her leadership at the upcoming party convention. And they quickly agreed that Merz would make a perfect challenger -- and they began pressuring him to take on the role. One of the most important things that Merz had going for him: the support of CDU eminence grise Wolfgang Schäuble.
He didn't just give Merz advice, he also sought to open doors for him. In mid-October, Merz traveled to Brussels for talks with important politicians and officials, and Schäuble managed to arrange a meeting for him with Joseph Daul, the French head of the European People's Party, the center-right group in European Parliament to which the CDU also belongs. But not long later, Daul warned Merkel that Schäuble was working on behalf of Merz behind the scenes.
The chancellor was unimpressed. "Schäuble has a new candidate every week," she said. But it was the moment at which Merkel must have realized that her opponents were serious this time.
Merz was a frequent visitor to Brussels during this important phase. On Oct. 10, for example, he went to the fall reception of the Deutsches Aktieninstitut, a financial lobbying organization. The next morning, he met with Günther Oettinger, Germany's European commissioner and also a member of the Andes Pact. Oettinger also encouraged Merz to think about running for the CDU leadership should Merkel pull back. Oettinger felt that Merz would make a good successor because Merz had also once been a European parliamentarian and held similar views on European policy as he did. Merz told Oettinger that he wanted to wait and see how the conservatives performed in the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse.
Oettinger was far from the only one who encouraged Merz to take the step. Another member of the Andes Pact, the former governor of Hesse Roland Koch, also pushed him to think hard about running to become the CDU's leader. They had the impression that Merz wanted to take the step but was wary of the risk involved. "His preference would be for the party leadership committee to unanimously request him to run for the position," one ally joked.
Still, Merz's allies were unsure if the timing was right. They were looking ahead to the Hesse election and felt that if the CDU's result fell to 28 percent, they would be able to move forward to pressure Merkel to resign. Just to make sure, Schäuble placed an op-ed in the influential conservative weekly Welt am Sonntag on the day of the state vote. Typically for Schäuble, the text wasn't about Merkel at all, but about Max von Baden, the German chancellor who dethroned Kaiser Wilhelm II on Nov. 9, 1918.
That moment, Schäuble wrote, was "the perfect lesson for choosing the right moment in politics." Von Baden's hesitation had "increased the pressure that led to the revolutionary events of Nov. 9," Schäuble wrote, adding that von Baden's tenure as chancellor was a lesson that the right moment in politics "is usually only apparent in hindsight. And that doing nothing can also have consequences."
Merkel's allies have become experts over the years in decoding the hidden messages delivered by long-time adversary Schäuble, knew immediately how this particular history lesson was intended: as a demand that Merkel hand over leadership of the CDU.
When the results from Hesse began rolling in that Sunday evening, it quickly became clear that the CDU was in trouble, even if the party would likely still remain in power in the state as the head of a coalition government. That evening, Schäuble's son-in-law Thomas Stobl, himself a deputy leader of the CDU, flew on behalf of the anti-Merkel group to feel out whether the time was right to push her out.
But Strobl's mission was in vain: Merkel gave no indication that she was preparing to resign from the post. Shortly after the first results from Hesse were announced, Kramp-Karrenbauer met with Merkel to ask the chancellor how she should respond to questions about Merkel's future.
"What should I tell the journalists?" she asked. "Has your position changed?" Merkel told her that her conviction that the positions of party chair and chancellor must be held by the same person -- as she had recently told the daily Augsburger Allgemeine -- had not budged.
A short time later, Kramp-Karrenbauer went before the cameras in the foyer of CDU party headquarters in Berlin and said: "The CDU party chairwoman has been very clear that she intends to run again at the party convention."
Not even 24 hours later, though, Merkel stood at the same spot and delivered the exact opposite message, saying she would not run again to become party chair. During the press conference, Merkel didn't make a big deal of the fact that she had just completely contradicted herself. Yes, she said, the decision "is a significant deviation from my deeply felt conviction." But, she added, she still felt the "risk" was justifiable. She seemed completely in control and not at all agitated, as though she had accepted her fate.
"Since when have I been thinking of this step?" she asked rhetorically. "Since before the summer break."
And indeed, she had been thinking about it for some time. There are very few people who Merkel consults about questions of such existential importance. But one of them is Annette Schavan, the former education minister. On the last weekend in July, right in the middle of the parliamentary break, Schavan traveled to Hohenwalde, a town just short of the border with Poland, to visit with Merkel at her dacha. This is where Merkel spent much of her summer vacation this year, forgoing her usual trip to South Tyrol.
During Schavan's visit, the two them discussed potential future scenarios, and both were convinced that conservatives were facing steep losses in the upcoming state elections in Bavaria and Hesse and that pressure on Merkel would continue to rise. The two women considered how Merkel could justify giving up the party chair position if need be while at the same time hanging on to the Chancellery. Merkel, though, secretly hoped that it wouldn't come to that, as can be seen from her subsequent comments to the Augsburger Allgemeine.
But ultimately, she saw an increasing number of indications that her rival Friedrich Merz wasn't just thinking of a candidacy but was taking concrete steps. The plan she had hammered out with Schavan was becoming more probable all the time.
Merkel likely made her decision on the evening of the election in Hesse. Critique of her leadership from state chapters of the CDU had begun trickling into the Chancellery and the rumor that Merz was intending to challenge her for party leadership was solidifying. It became clear to Merkel that a debate about her position as party chair would erupt in the coming days and she couldn't wait for the party leadership retreat scheduled for a week hence. She had to take action if she wanted some modicum of control of the unfolding situation.
On Monday morning, just minutes before party leaders were set to gather to discuss the Hesse result, Merkel walked into Kramp-Karrenbauer's office and told the general secretary that she was not going to run for re-election as CDU chairwoman. For a moment, Kramp-Karrenbauer was speechless.
A Period of Anarchy
In the meeting a short time later, Merkel had hardly informed party officials of her decision before a representative of Friedrich Merz informed the mass-circulation tabloid Bild that he intended to run.
That put the pressure on Kramp-Karrenbauer. She had actually hoped to wait a bit, feeling as she did that a sudden announcement was somehow disrespectful to Merkel. But she was concerned that the Merz train could quickly gather momentum. So she held a long speech about the tepid results from Hesse and spoke of the problems that the CDU had to address in the future. And finished her remarks by saying: "That is why I am running for the position of chairwoman." Applause erupted in the room.
Just minutes later, Jens Spahn threw his hat into the ring as well. It was a spontaneous move with no real plan behind it. The room went silent.
"It wasn't coordinated," says a member of the CDU's conservative wing. "There was a loss of control for a couple of hours on Monday." Spahn, the conservative wing representative says, "lost his nerve," adding that "following every dictatorship, a period of anarchy follows. That's what happened on Monday."
Merz and his close friend Schäuble have been waiting for a long time for an opportunity to get even with Merkel and to reverse her political course. Few other CDU politicians feel as humiliated by her as those two, both of whom believe that Merkel prevented them from receiving their political dues. Now, they are standing in the way of the chancellor's final political goal: that of retaining control over her own departure.
The two men have been friends for a long time. When Schäuble celebrated his 75th birthday one year ago, Merz wasn't just invited to the official ceremony, but also to the private party for family and friends. Merkel was not. Merz was also among the first to learn that Schäuble no longer wanted to be in the cabinet following last year's general election.
Merz has a lot to thank Schäuble for. Back in 1996, Schäuble installed Merz as the senior conservative on the Finance Committee in German parliament. Four years later, he then ensured that Merz succeeded him as conservative floor leader when he was forced to resign in early 2000 due to his role in the CDU donation scandal.
Schäuble also promoted Merkel, surprising everyone in 1998 by making her the party's general secretary. Everyone assumed that she would remain loyal to Schäuble out of gratitude, but Merkel seized the first chance she got to set out on her own.
In mid-December 1999, just as the party donation scandal was reaching its apex, Merkel published her famous open letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung challenging the party to emancipate itself from Helmut Kohl. Schäuble only learned of the existence of the letter once it was published. It was the first wound that Merkel inflicted on him.
He paid her back in his own way. When the question arose two years later whether Merkel would be the chancellor candidate for the conservatives or whether that honor would go to Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, Schäuble supported Stoiber. As did Merz and other senior members of the Andes Pact.
What Merz didn't know, however, is that Stoiber had promised to support Merkel for the position of conservative floor leader after the election. When Merz learned about the deal on the evening of Stoiber's defeat to Gerhard Schröder, he was furious. It was only with significant effort that Schäuble was able to convince him to remain in politics at all -- and Merz was left to serve his hated rival as deputy floor leader.
'The Woman from East Germany'
Merz never really got over the defeat. In an interview shortly after the 2002 general election, he complained that Merkel had not adhered to an agreement regarding the position of floor leader. But, he added grumpily, he wasn't surprised. After all, he "knows her in such situations."
Increasingly, Merz was unable to hide his dislike for Merkel. The fact that "the woman from East Germany," as he called her, passed by all of her deserving party allies and then even managed to win the Chancellery is something that he saw as a lasting ignominy. In 2009, Merz decided to no longer campaign for re-election in the Bundestag and left politics.
Schäuble's relationship with Merkel likewise worsened quickly, reaching its nadir in the spring of 2004. That year saw the election of a new German president and Merkel had initially supported Schäuble for the position. But then she saw an opportunity to push through a candidate together with the support of the business-friendly Free Democrats as a kind of precursor to joining the party in a future governing coalition. In the decisive meeting of CDU leaders in March 2004, Schäuble made one final effort to turn the tide in his own favor. It isn't wise, he said, "to allow smaller partners to dictate important decisions." Everyone knew how difficult it was for Schäuble to toot his own horn, but he badly wanted the office of president.
Still, Merkel wouldn't budge and together with the FDP, she installed the former International Monetary Fund head Horst Köhler in the office.
From that point on, Schäuble was damned to serve in the cabinet of a woman who had destroyed his life's dream. First, he served as interior minister before moving to the Finance Ministry -- and he consistently made it clear that he felt he had better leadership qualities than Merkel.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 45/2018 (November 3rd, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
The depth of the wounds suffered by Merz and Schäuble would occasionally surface in the ensuing years. "The strategy of putting as many voters from the other side into a coma is likely at an end," Merz said bitingly last year in reference to Merkel's soporific political style. Schäuble, for his part, became more vocal in his criticism the weaker Merkel became, particularly in reference to her refugee policies, the result of which he described as an "avalanche."
Following the most recent general election in September 2017, Schäuble elected to leave the cabinet for the position of Bundestag president. That meant that he no longer had to hew as closely to the Chancellery line, a freedom of which he has taken full advantage. Ahead of the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, he publicly speculated about the end of the Merkel era. "She is no longer as beyond dispute as she was in the past three, or two-and-a-half, legislative periods," he said. He said he expected the election results would have consequences for national policy and, as such, for the chancellor's standing.
By that point, Schäuble knew that his friend Merz was ready to run for the position of CDU party chairman. Indeed, he didn't just encourage Merz to do so, but also helped him choose the appropriate timing of his announcement. The more quickly he made his announcement following the Hesse election, Schäuble told Merz, the worse it would be for Merkel.
A Rendevouz with the Past
When Merz held a press conference last Wednesday to reintroduce himself to the country, it was like a rendezvous with the past. His hair is a bit thinner, his face a bit gaunter, but otherwise he looks just the same as he always has.
Merz said that the CDU needs "clarity about its core brand" and said that it cannot accept a situation in which divisive parties on both the right-wing and left-wing fringes have become established. As always, Merz was well-spoken and full of conviction.
Merz is the great hope for all those who would like to see the Merkel era come to an end as soon as possible. Furthermore, many see him as the one who can bring back those disgruntled CDU voters who have jumped ship in recent years for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany. And that hope might even be justified. When Merz speaks of a "national identity" and "traditional values," it doesn't sound forced. Furthermore, his pro-European stance protects him against accusations of being a parochial nationalist.
"The grassroots are drunk on Merz," says a local CDU representative from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, adding that he is seen as the messiah. "But that can change."
It is possible for someone who has been out of politics for the last 10 years to step in and take over the leadership of a big-tent party like the CDU? The view from afar can be helpful, says Merz. He's part of an international legal practice and he has a seat on several supervisory boards, including for the gigantic American asset management firm Blackrock. Recently, he stopped for a chat with former Economics Minister Philipp Rösler at a summer party held by the newspaper Bild. According to someone who listened in, the two talked about which of them had the bigger airplane. For some time now, Merz has been living in a parallel world that is far away from the needs of normal people.
It is also unclear if he can win over those CDU members who are in favor of the course of modernization pursued by Merkel. It isn't a small group, as Merz well knows. During his press conference last week, he was careful to speak of environmental protection and about the women and young people who needed to have an opportunity in the CDU. Whether people view such sentiments as credible coming from him will be decisive in the success or failure of his efforts to be elected to the party chairmanship.
The only one who looks to be in a position to stop his comeback is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK as she is frequently called. But given that she has only been CDU general secretary since February, the personnel shuffle may be coming too early for her. Her initial plan had called for slowly increasing her profile within the party, developing her network and taking steps to prepare for leadership by 2020. Now, though, she is in the position of having to make a jump for it.
But Kramp-Karrenbauer is hardly an outsider. After 37 years in the CDU, she regularly receives broad support in elections to various party bodies. She has experience in a variety of ministries, from education to labor to interior. And her supporters are fond of reminding people that it was her victory in the Saarland state election in 2017 that put the initial brakes on Martin Schulz's efforts to challenge Merkel for the Chancellery last year.
The CDU core likewise has great respect for her decision to give up her safe position as governor of Saarland to serve the party as general secretary. If Jens Spahn loses the election to succeed Merkel, he would return to being health minister while Merz would continue in the private economy. For Kramp-Karrenbauer, on the other hand, her entire political career is at stake. Should she fail, she has said she would also give up the general secretary position. This situation is likewise something that many CDU members will take into account when casting their ballots.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's greatest weakness is likely her proximity to Merkel. Merz's supporters refer to her as "Merkel II." She has, though, sought to carefully distance herself from the chancellor in recent months; in emails to the party base, she hasn't shied away from openly addressing problems with Merkel's current government. Still, her dry public appearances and her style of calmly considering her options remind many of Merkel.
AKK's supporters hope that the discussion of future party leadership will soon cease focusing exclusively on Merkel and instead seek to answer the question: What does the CDU of the future want to be? A conservative, Islamophobic, economically liberal power, as embodied by Spahn and Merz? Or the humanitarian, centrist party that unites rather than polarizes?
In the ensuing campaign, Kramp-Karrenbauer hopes to present herself as an intermediary between the two party wings. Furthermore, she can point to the fact that in the last several years, she has fought for the party on the front lines and won important elections while others simply stood on the sidelines and watched.
Those who see Kramp-Karrenbauer as the most malleable of the trio running for the CDU chairmanship, however, are mistaken. Her supporters know how to run a campaign and know that it is worth telling journalists that Merz possesses an airplane in addition to a pilot's license. Should he become CDU head, asked one member of the AKK camp innocently, would Merz fly to campaign events in eastern Germany in his private jet? Would he climb directly out of the cockpit onto the market squares of Zwickau and Gera to talk to people whose jobs were cut by one of those financial institutes that works closely with Blackrock? And did you know, her team is careful to ask, that Merz was once in favor of weakening job security regulations and introducing the 42-hour work week?
No Clear Favorite
This is, in short, the first time that the CDU has seen a race in which there is no clear favorite, one in which the old method of backroom string-pulling isn't likely to work. Aside from the CDU women's group, no association within the CDU is likely to endorse a candidate, and the largest state chapter, the one from North Rhine-Westphalia, can't choose sides either since both Merz and Spahn come from the state. Plus, they are both economically liberal, both prefer a strong state, both are seen as Merkel detractors and both are socially conservative. Even the openly gay Spahn recently opted to marry his partner, a move viewed by many as a very traditional.
When the votes are cast on Dec. 7 in Hamburg, there will be a run-off if none of the three candidates emerge with more than 50 percent of the votes in the first ballot. It seems likely that such a run-off would pit Merz against Kramp-Karrenbauer. For Spahn, Merz's candidacy is a significant nuisance. He even admitted to confidantes that Merz's comeback came as a surprise. Currently, he is seen as the candidate with the weakest chances. Even Merz doesn't see him as much of a threat. The fact that Spahn, in an op-ed for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which he outlined his candidacy, identified refugee policy as the most important issue was seen by many as a desperate attempt to sharpen his profile.
Migration policy, Spahn wrote, is "the white elephant in the room" and the party can no longer be silent about it. A few lines later, though, he wrote that the debate should finally produce results. His opponents have been savoring the contradiction. "Which is it?" they wonder. Spahn, they say, is only interested in power and develops his positions not out of conviction, but out of a desire to differentiate himself from his opponents. They point to his recent video, a 69-second clip of him stepping into elevators and crossing the street.
Are Snap Elections Ahead?
The result of the election won't just carry significant consequences for Angela Merkel. The fate of the current governing coalition could also hang in the balance and snap elections are one possible outcome.
If there is any chance left that Merkel remains in office for the remainder of her term, then it could only happen under the party leadership of Kramp-Karrenbauer. The two women trust and respect each other. But even that constellation would be problematic. Kramp-Karrenbauer would have to sharply distance the CDU from the government so that she wouldn't fall victim to the widespread dissatisfaction with the current coalition.
If Merz or Spahn were to win, Merkel's tenure would likely soon be over. It is hard to imagine a constellation of Spahn being both CDU chair and a member of Merkel's cabinet. The two lack even the minimum amount of mutual trust that would be necessary for such a situation to work.
The end would likely come even more quickly if Merz were to emerge victorious. He loathes both Merkel and her confidantes with a fervor that is rare even in politics. When asked last Wednesday about his departure from politics a decade ago, Merz said that when two people "don't fit together in their convictions or their styles, then they must separate." He could just as well, however, have been talking about the near future. And Merkel agrees. Should Merz win in early December, confidantes say, she wouldn't stick around for long.
When then? Swapping out a chancellor is no small thing. There is little chance that the Social Democrats, as junior coalition partner, would support Merz. He himself assumes that the SPD would move further to the left and begin looking for an excuse to end the coalition with the conservatives.
An encounter with Merz these days -- with his energy and euphoria resulting from the successful kick-off to his campaign -- makes it clear that he has lofty goals. He didn't reenter politics to play third fiddle to the chancellor and parliamentary floor leader. He enthusiastically points to surveys that show him far ahead of his competitors for the party leadership position. In addition, his popularity ratings aren't just high among CDU supporters, but also in the population at large.
Merz doesn't just want to become CDU party head. He wants power.